NEW YORK, United States — After nearly four decades building her namesake brand into a global symbol of refinement and femininity, Carolina Herrera announced on Friday that her Autumn/Winter 2018 runway show at the Museum of Modern Art will be her last as her namesake label’s creative leader.
Herrera’s exit marks the end of an era for American designer brands, as the old masters give way to a new generation. The socialite-turned-high society designer is handing the reins over to Wes Gordon, a 31-year-old designer intimately familiar with the black-tie circuit crowd. In 2016, Oscar de la Renta — another decades-long leader in the business of making women look their best, whose charismatic namesake passed in 2014 — brought back former designers Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia as co-creative directors.
The time is ripe for a transition in this corner of the designer market — where most brands are in the business of selling clothes, instead of marketing the aspirational to sell beauty and fragrance. Society is, by nature, always evolving, but the changes are particularly visible now in the wardrobes of the so-called One Percent.
Status today looks different than it did before the recession when women wore conscious consumption on their sleeves. Now being constantly busy — whether or not one has a job — as well as entrepreneurship, are seen as virtues, as is balancing work and philanthropy with motherhood. The Trump Administration and #MeToo era have imported activism and feminism into the populist feed. "The Real Housewives” franchise has commercialised a cartoon version of privilege. Plus, luxury consumers are spending more on travel and wellness experiences, often carefully documented on social media.
“The new society woman has work lunches,” says Lauren Santo Domingo, a former Vogue contributing editor and founder of luxury e-commerce retailer Moda Operandi. “She is much more global and open-minded and not as conservative. The old rules don’t apply.”
“Oscar [de la Renta] and Carolina [Herrera] absolutely covered that charity luncheon [look] — nobody else did it the way they did it,” says Laura Vinroot Poole, owner of the Charlotte luxury specialty boutique Capitol. Once, the official uniform of the luncheon was a nipped waist, sleeveless frock. “But I have a hard time selling a dress like that now,” she says.
“Fast fashion and high street and [direct-to-consumer athleisure brands] have really taken the place of that designer sportswear business,” says Zac Posen, who has remained committed to the “business of looking beautiful” since his debut over 15 years ago.
Today, if women are lunching in anything other than athleisure, fast fashion or logo-covered streetwear, the attire is more akin to something that Pheobe Philo — the recently departed Celine designer heralded for her ability to design for the modern woman’s lifestyle — would approve. “If it’s an uptown luncheon, they wear all Chanel or something simple, nothing that would stand out — like they didn’t even try,” says Silvia Gaitan, a New York-based personal shopper and stylist.
The casualisation of culture, however, has upped the excitement for special occasion wear. Evening has become “mega,” as Tom Ford described it to BoF in 2017. Valued at $421 billion in 2014, the global women's formalwear market is projected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate of 4.2 percent through 2023, according to market research firm Research Nester.
“I once heard somebody say that in New York, you can go to a black tie every single night,” says Santo Domingo. “That has not gone away… My dance card is still quite full.” But the approach has evolved for women, and looking like she has tried too hard is passé. Ball gowns no longer reign. “What used to be a day suit for me is now evening for people,” said Ford.
What used to be a day suit for me is now evening for people.
Designer Monique Lhuillier has different types of customers, divided regionally. In the Middle East, her clients want “over the top” gowns; in Asia, they want something closer to the body. In the US, her largest region for sales, the client increasing wants an ankle length versatile dress for day and night. “I try to reinvent what I do in separates, focusing on pretty dresses you can wear for day.”
“With all the talk of #MeToo, dressing is a lot more modest,” says Vinroot Poole. “I have a really sophisticated client and they're much more into clothes that work hard for them than [name brands].” She uses an $8,000 Valentino day dress as an example. “She is much more open to buying [that] now if she knows she can wear it 50 different ways.”
Gaitan says her clients are only interested in European luxury brands and prefer simplicity over identifiable trend and collections. “They are now buying things that they can keep in their closet for a while,” she says. (About half of her clients buy a new wardrobe each season.) “They stick to high-end designers because their collections are a progression, it’s not a completely different thing from season to season.”
The Moda Operandi customer, more international and perhaps younger, takes more risks. “In New York and California, we are seeing a much looser silhouette with a little more edge,” says Santo Domingo. “The past was about conforming, fitting in… This woman is much more interested in fashion and this world before. Ten years ago, [she] poo-pooed it a bit.”
Buoyed by this interest, a new generation of brands, foreign and domestic, have made the eveningwear market more competitive. Consider Gabriela Hearst, Rosetta Getty, Rosie Assoulin, Johanna Ortiz, Roksanda and Emilia Wickstead as examples. These labels are cool and buzzy — designed by women who live the same multi-tasking luxury lifestyle as their clients. Then there are the more contemporary brands eating into the market, too, including Galvan, Zimmerman, Jonathan Simkhai and Cinq à Sept.
Where does that leave the brands that ascended the industry by dressing the Nan Kempners of the world? (The influential New York City socialite's wardrobe was the subject of a solo Costume Institute exhibit in 2006.) There is no clear answer.
The past was about conforming, fitting in. This woman is much more interested in fashion.
“I don't think a business today can be built solely on a one staple item that gets repeated the customer,” says Posen, referring to everything from a silhouette to a fragrance. “Repetition is reputation, but you have to keep evolving.”
Trunk shows are still essential ways to forge relationships with clients across the country and world. “All of a sudden, trunk shows are a lot more exciting and it's a big part of our business,” says Vinroot Poole. Some of the designers who draw the largest crowds at Capitol are Barbara Tfank and Paris-based designer Jane Pendry of Dovima Paris.
And then there’s the growing rental market. Both Posen and Lhullier say that the likes of Rent the Runway and Aramarium have not impacted their business because it appeals to a different customer set, but Vinroot Poole has embraced it at Capitol. “If they are going to events that are not super important to them, they are totally happy to rent a gown for that one,” she says.
Brands also have new ways to capitalise on weddings, beyond the designer bridal collection. “Fashion dresses are being worn as wedding dresses, which ten years ago that would have been an absolute outrage,” says Santo Domingo. Or, if they wear a traditional designer dress for the big moment — ordered months ahead of time instead of purchased off the rack — brides are embracing more opportunities throughout the wedding weekend or event to dress designer, often with the help of a bridal stylist who even assists with honeymoon wardrobes.
Our culture is continuing to evolve at a faster and faster pace, but luxury fashion remains a powerful signifier. "It goes all the way back to Charles Worth dressing the American heiresses," says Posen. But today, "the designer customer has more confidence in her own decisions than ever before," he adds.
With less restraints, the upside for the talented Gordon and his friends could be huge.